For love of animals: Debra Thomas on the saving grace of animals in life and literature

As I watch footage of Ukrainian citizens fleeing their hometowns, some with a baby in one arm and a dog or cat in the other, I am moved even further to tears. When picked up, most cats and dogs—and especially toddlers—will squirm to get down. How on earth could this young mother or this aging grandmother manage to carry them for endless, tedious, terrifying hours? I know the answer right away. I’d do the same. You’d do the same. We’d carry our beloved family members no matter how strained our arms or backs might become. Like each of them, we’d find a way to get our loved ones to safety.

Our loved ones.

I get a tad peeved with the word “pet.” When people learn that I no longer ride my horse, Jack, they often say in an offhand way, “Oh, so he’s just a pet.” Just a pet? How do I explain what a deeply meaningful role he plays in my life? How on my saddest days—like when my dad died or every single day of the pandemic lockdown—my gentle horse soothed my pain and healed my heart. So did my little dog, Bentley. I can see you nodding, maybe tearing up as you read this, thinking of your own dog, or cat, or some other creature of God’s, great and small, that brings unconditional love and a sense of purpose to your daily life. Our loved ones.

This is why some of my favorite books include animals. I’m not talking about classics in which the main character is an animal, like Black Beauty or Charlotte’s Web, or even more recently, Jane Smiley’s magnificent Perestroika in Paris, although these works certainly convey much about the complexities of human nature. I’m thinking more of those stories that reveal a side of human protagonists through their relationship to their dog or cat or horse—a more transparent perspective into the character’s true self.

While Emmanuel Kant’s famous quote, “We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals,” is true, there’s also the fact that animals themselves don’t judge at all, but offer devoted companionship without expecting anything in return. As a result, the reader might witness a character’s honest, open monologue, perhaps even a confession, in the presence of their beloved dog or cat or horse—something that would not otherwise be revealed.  

In National Book Award winner The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, the narrator, who loses a dear friend to suicide, takes in his grieving Great Dane, Apollo. Together she and the dog find comfort as they struggle with their loss. Apollo is a daily companion, someone to talk to as the narrator sorts through her tangled emotions. He gives her a reason to get out of her isolated apartment as they go for walks. Perhaps most touching—at least to me—is when she discovers that reading aloud to Apollo brings great comfort—to both of them.

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Similarly, in Abigail Thomas’s memoir, A Three Dog Life, her relationship with her dogs is an integral part of the new life she must build after her husband suffers a severe brain injury and is placed in an institution. For many Mary Oliver fans, her Percy poems are their most cherished. Those moments of carefree joy with her treasured dog, as well as the love and subsequent loss, are as poignant as those involving her lifelong human partner, Molly. While there are numerous books about the healing power of horses, one of my favorites is Ginger Gaffney’s Half Broke, a true story of a horse trainer’s experience at an alternative prison ranch dealing with broken souls, both equine and human. A mutual healing is the underlying theme in all of these works.

I think of the fleeing Ukrainian refugees, clinging to their heavy load, and pray for their mutual healing.

Throughout my own life with cats, dogs, and horses, I’ve witnessed and experienced this mutual healing myself. My husband’s anger and frustration with a work-related issue would dissolve in a matter of seconds when our senior horse, Fire Mountain, would lift his head and rest it on my husband’s shoulder, then lean in with a deep sigh. A sacred moment of communion.

When my dad lost my mom, whom he’d taken care of for years after MS left her in a wheelchair, he was utterly lost—until we brought him a puppy, Smokey, who became his devoted companion and gave him seven more years of life, despite pulmonary fibrosis. His last words to me and my sister were, “Take care of my little doggie.” Smokey’s sister Chloe, my horse Jack, and my treasured cat Lily became my greatest comfort in those months and years following my dad’s death.

This is why when I sat down during the pandemic to write a novel about profound loss and a fragmented family, I knew animals had to be an important part of their healing and reconnection. In my upcoming novel, Josie and Vic, I include a Siberian Husky and three horses that help ease tensions between characters or literally bring them together. Directly and indirectly, the animals serve as catalysts to connection.

Animals can bring out tenderness even in the grumpiest and most disagreeable of humans. It’s one way to break through barriers and create a bond. Companionship and connection. What the world needs now.

Bless those courageous refugees who carry their beloved animals to safety in Ukraine. May they find comfort in each other, for as the narrator in The Friend says, “What are we, Apollo and I, if not two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other.”

May we all strive for this connection and greet each other in kindness and peace.

Debra Thomas is the author of Luz, winner of the 2020 Sarton Award for Contemporary Fiction and the 2020 Next Generation Indie Book Award for Multicultural Fiction. Originally from Binghamton, New York, she has lived in Southern California most of her adult life. A writer, teacher, and immigrant rights advocate, Debra taught literature and writing at a Los Angeles public high school and English as a Second Language to adults from all over the world. She currently lives with her husband and dog in Simi Valley, California, just minutes away from her two horses. Her second novel, Josie and Vic, will be published in April 2023. For more information, visit her website and sign up for news and updates.


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